Oprah Winfrey has signed to star in the HBO film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” based on the story of a Baltimore County woman whose cells, taken from her while she was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 and later harvested without her or her family’s knowledge, developed into the first immortal cell line and continue to be used in medical research.
Winfrey, who will also serve as the film’s executive producer, will portray Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, through whose eyes the story will be told.
The movie is being adapted from Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book of the same name.
Henrietta Lacks, a native of Roanoke, Va., was living in the Turner Station community when she checked into Hopkins for treatment; she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
During her teatments, samples of her cervix were removed. Researchers later discovered that, unlike most cells, these did not die after a few days, but continued to live and grow. Her cell line, named HeLa after the first two letters of her first and last name, has been used extensively in medical research involving diseases from polio to AIDS.
Lacks was never told about her cells’ immoratality; it was not common practice at the time to inform patients that researchers might be using tissue taken from them during treatment. As late as 1990, a California Supreme Court ruling held that discarded tissue and cells are not a patient's property and could legally be turned into commercial products by others.
Henrietta Lacks died on Oct. 4, 1951, and is buried in Halifax County, Va. Another 20 years would pass before her name was attached to the cell line, which is still being used in medical research.
Henrietta Lacks’ sons Zakariyya Rahman and David Lacks Jr. and granddaughter Jeri Lacksare will serve as consultants on the HBO project.
Winfrey’s Harpo Films, Ball’s Your Face Goes Here Entertainment and Pilcher’s Cine Mosaic will produce.
Filming begins this summer, and no premiere date has been announced.
Tribune News Services contributed to this article.